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Connecting with God through sport

Tracey Edstein  |  10 November 2018

Sport and faith were passions for Helene O’Neill from an early age. But it was only later in life that she saw the fruitfulness in bringing them together.

When Helene O’Neill was in primary school at St Laurence O’Toole’s in the Newcastle suburb of Broadmeadow, she and her younger brother Richard were encouraged by their father to go to weekday morning Mass. They were happy to accompany him; in fact they would go even when he didn’t go. However, on those days Helene would corral the Year 6 boys and she would play cricket with them outside while Richard served Mass.

Fast forward several decades and Helene is chaplain to Cooks Hill Surf Club and Family Ministry Co-ordinator to 20 schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. And young Richard? He’s Rev Dr Richard Lennan, Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College and the author of several books. As Helene says, ‘We’ve taken different paths but we both have the same boss − God!’


Faith and sport – or is that sport and faith? − are the twin threads that permeate Helene’s somewhat frantic life, supported always by her husband Mick.

When we meet at breakfast time, Helene arrives on her trusty pushbike, having exercised from 6am and following up with a meeting of the local contact group for the Council for Australian Catholic Women.

Helene is both a journalist and a teacher, although her career has ranged well beyond both writing and teaching.

Quite some years ago now she worked as a development officer with Rugby League’s Newcastle Knights and was asked to consider being chaplain to the Knights. ‘At the time I couldn’t see the connection between faith and footy’ – and she was loving the opportunity to encourage fitness in the school students the squad visited and being part of the Knights enterprise.

Some years later, when Helene saw an advertisement for a sports chaplaincy course, she thought, ‘I’m ready for that’.


‘The principles of chaplaincy are the same, whether you’re a chaplain to the port, industry, university, a prison or a hospital, but in the formation for sports chaplaincy, all the examples were from the sporting world. I loved it.’

The next step was to approach Bishop Bill Wright about the possibility of a sports chaplain joining the ‘diocesan team’. He came on board and so Helene added another string to her bow.

Meanwhile – in between playing top level badminton, serving on Newcastle City Council and being heavily involved in her parish of Blackbutt South – Helene had taken on a position as Family Ministry Co-ordinator in city Catholic schools, both primary and secondary. This involved supporting students, staff and parents in myriad ways – and like everything she does, Helene brings her own unique style.

One of the issues that arises is the pressure children can feel to fulfil their parents’ hopes. ‘The kids tell me the stories’, she says, and while Helene’s not about being the mediator, she’s in a position where she can plant the seeds that need to be planted. One challenge arose when a Mum told Helene, who was encouraging the policy of non-competitive sport among younger children, ‘I trained these girls to win.’

As Helene recalls, ‘It was a red flag to the pink lanyard I wear so people can easily identify me. But we were able to come to an understanding.’


Helene says she bases her own life on the fruits of the Holy Spirit. She has developed a program based on that idea, which she uses with primary school students.

‘Each week we focus on a different “fruit” and I’ll remind the kids about how to apply it as we go through the activities of the day. “What was that fruit we talked about?”’

Teachers, too, pick up on the analogy and follow through in the classroom.

Helene is also chaplain to Cooks Hill Surf Club and proudly carries the lifesaving bible. One of the aspects of this gig that she particularly enjoys is ‘Same Wave’, an initiative that supports children with a disability in enjoying Newcastle’s beautiful beaches. Helene engages the parents, recognising that their lives can be quite demanding and that there’s often a level of anxiety, even as they embrace this opportunity for their children.

Helene says, ‘I just sit on the sand and we chat away and they get lost in the conversation. We switch the focus to the joy the children and their mentors are able to experience at the beach while their parents just relax.’


In fact, a growing level of anxiety − in children and adults − is something Helene has identified and which concerns her. While such pursuits as yoga, meditation and counselling have their place, Helene’s a great believer in taking time out, finding a quiet place – perhaps in nature or in the peace of a church – and spending time in stillness and reflection.

She doesn’t overlook the meditative aspect of praying with rosary beads – and rosary bead making is one of her favourite school activities.

Being part of the parish is vital to Helene. As family ministry co-ordinator, Helene’s involved in the sacramental program with students, parents and families. She works hard to strengthen links with the parish community, drawing together parishioners – including teachers, students, parents and grandparents – and parish leaders.

‘It’s all about the relationships I form with people. Am I tired? Yes, every day. Is it what I’ve been called to do? Definitely.’

And just in case you were wondering, Richard never ‘dobbed’ on Helene – but the game was up when she came home one morning with a split chin courtesy of a cricket ball.

Tracey Edstein is a freelance writer and a former teacher and magazine editor.

Image: Helene on the beach with some of the children at Cook's Hill Surf Club. By Bernadette Enright (Magnolia Star Photography). 


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